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A Spectrum of Politics and Governance Grounded in Empowered Citizen Dialogue and Deliberation

This 2005 article by Tom Atlee, founder of the Co-Intelligence Institute, addresses the question of how to connect different forms of citizen dialogue and deliberation – from mass participatory contexts to more complex forms of deliberation with limited participation – to generate collective wisdom that is truly democratic.

All forms of dialogue and deliberation serve our evolution into a culture of dialogue. Part of that evolution is the increased legitimacy and empowerment of forms that call forth more of society’s collective intelligence and wisdom. As new forms of dialogue and deliberation demonstrate their effectiveness, they can be increasingly trusted by citzens and officials, and thus can (and should) become increasingly embedded in the institutions of social policy-making.

The increasing sophistication of dialogue and deliberation methodologies over the past two decades, combined with increasingly sophisticated communication and knowledge-management systems, as well as the spread of holistic philosophies and spiritual practices, suggests that we are rapidly increasing our ability to generate collective intelligence and wisdom through well-designed communications. We now face the task of bringing that capacity into the public trust and into official practice.

To clarify part of that developmental trajectory, we can map a spectrum (below) that reflects the growing empowerment and legitimization of citizen dialogue and deliberation. We can start with a category that embraces all types and qualities of such conversations and public engagements — the ecosystem, if you will, of democratic discourse within which diverse species of dialogue and deliberation interact and evolve.

As the more complex, sophisticated, energy-demanding forms evolve, we find there are fewer of them than of the simpler forms — just as a forest has more fungi, ants and flowers than it has deer, owls and people. To maximize sustainability and productivity, there need to be rich interconnections between the simpler forms and the more complex forms — in fact, among all the forms.

In this vision of democratic dialogue and deliberation, we find that the most coherent and powerful forms demand a higher level of energy, resources and attention than the simpler forms. So, whereas the simple forms tend to be (at least potentially) cheap, numerous and inclusive of anyone who wants to show up, the more complex forms are more expensive, fewer, and directly involve fewer (and more carefully chosen) people who are given privileged access to a level of information and facilitation help that allows them to generate greater collective intelligence and wisdom.

If we focus merely on mass participation, we cannot afford these more complex and wisdom-generating forums which are too expensive to engage hundreds of thousands of people. However, if we focus only on the complex and potent forms, we get a kind of elite collective intelligence and wisdom which, although still grounded in the citizenry, has not been informed, digested and owned by the broader population, generating a sort of democratic elitism much as has happened with the evolution of representative democracy. To prevent both of these extremes, we need to synergistically weave together simpler, more widely participatory modes with the rarer, more potent and demanding modes of citizen deliberation.

The collective intelligence of the population as a whole needs to be in constant conversation with the wisdom generated by groups of citizens selected to work with especially high quality information and deliberative tools. Thus, the ideal “culture of dialogue” will include forums at all levels of the spectrum outlined below until we reach the most developed stage, where a true cultural shift has happened — away from fragmented battles, towards collective intelligence and wisdom — at which point many of these distinctions will become obsolete.

The spectrum below attempts to lay out a progression of forms from the simplest (1) to the more complex and powerful (6), before breaking through to a new culture (7). Note that this spectrum is centered on CITIZEN dialogue and deliberation. Not mentioned, but not excluded, are other forms of dialogue and deliberation, particularly stakeholder dialogues and legislative deliberations. They play significant roles in this vision of a wise democracy, but (from this citizen-centered perspective) the locus of power and collective intelligence is firmly established in the dialogue and deliberation of CITIZENS. Stakeholder dialogues and legislative deliberations serve to augment the collective intelligence generated by citizen discourse.

THE SPECTRUM (with examples)

1. Citizen dialogue and deliberation (of any and all kinds) (e.g., conversation cafes)

2. Citizen dialogue and deliberation with a coherent outcome (i.e., whole-group statements, actions or outcomes) (e.g., deliberative polling)

3. Citizen dialogue and deliberation with a coherent outcome that plugs into policy-making and decision-making (usually in an advisory role) (e.g., National Issues Forums)

4. Citizen dialogue and deliberation with a coherent outcomethat plugs into policy-making and decision-makingwhere the citizens are selected to reflect the diversity of the community (e.g., citizen deliberative councils)

5. Citizen dialogue and deliberation with a coherent outcome that plugs into policy-making and decision-making where the citizens are selected to reflect the diversity of the community and the whole process is officially institutionalized (e.g., consensus conferences)

6. Citizen dialogue and deliberation with a coherent outcomethat plugs into policy-making and decision-makingwhere the citizens are selected to reflect the diversity of the community and the whole process is officially institutionalized and empowered such that it drives policy-making (e.g., B.C.’s Citizens Assembly)

7. A democratic political and governance system that is grounded in 1-6 above at least as much — or more than — in the competitive lobbying, voting, litigating modes of politics. (no real-world examples currently available) (for an imaginary example, see The Story of Pat and Pat)

In other words, we can have communities filled with study circles, intergroup dialogues, future searches, conversation cafes, world cafes, and all the other amazing processes listed on such sites as the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation wiki (1-6, above). These can generate a powerful background hum of conversations through which people are connecting up, exploring and learning together, and doing good work together. Some of them help public officials take the pulse of the community on important issues, seeing how citizens think about them (2-5, above).

Arising from that hum of powerful democratic conversations are some special conversations among people selected from the community to embody the community’s diversity, charged with deliberating or reflecting on particularly important community issues and reporting back to the community (4-6, above). These conversations are sometimes given not just an advisory role, but real power to make decisions (6). The more all these fit together into a coherent whole, the closer we get to a wise democracy (7).

At the stage we have reached today, we have diverse interesting models emerging at the upper end of the spectrum.

• In Denmark, an office of the government — The Board of Technology — periodically convenes official citizen deliberations on technical issues, but they are only advisory.

• The British Columbian Citizens Assembly was empowered to put their specific proposal to a decisive vote by the entire citizenry, which was quite empowering. Although they were an official creature of the government, they were only a one-time affair, not an ongoing office like the Danes have.

The Western Australian government has for years been convening representative citizen deliberations which make specific planning and policy recommendations which that government has largely followed, but the process has not been institutionalized as it was in Denmark and British Columbia.

• Similarly, the annual “participatory budgeting” process of Porto Allegre and other Brazilian cities is a very empowered form of citizen deliberation, deciding a significant portion of municipal budgets, but it has never been legislated into law and so cannot be counted as formally institutionalized.

Sooner or later, some public official, town, city, state, province or country — perhaps Western Australia, perhaps a Congressman in Virginia, perhaps a province in Canada, perhaps some other place or leader — will realize how all this fits together. They will put in place widespread, simple, ongoing forms of citizen dialogue and deliberation. They will convene well-publicized citizen deliberative councils on important, high profile issues, and engage whole communities in discussing the results. Then they will follow what the people tell them or publicly state why they can’t. They will be a different kind of leader, a different kind of community, and the form of democracy they catalyze will be unprecented. The people will become a learning community capable of growing together into ever wiser public judgment.

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